Vintage San Francisco rock concert posters remain a unique American art form

San Francisco in the ’60s brings thoughts of hippies and psychedelic rock, but the counterculture manifested itself in all the arts. And that was often the intention of a movement that sought to rearrange priorities, upend hierarchies and blur the lines.

Art Markets by Mary Manion

Some of the rare 45 rpm recordings from San Francisco bands have become valuable, but for collectors of the era’s artifacts, the greatest prizes are often original copies of the posters that promoted concerts in the Bay Area’s ballrooms and clubs. Even anyone uninterested in the era’s message of love, drugs and rock and roll must concede that the best of those posters are magnificent examples of 20th century art and design.  Groundbreaking yet thoroughly grounded in art history, they reflected an impulse in the counterculture that Richard Wagner would have recognized – the Gesamtkunstwerk or interplay of all the arts from light and sound to costume. The posters embodied the counterculture’s multi-media spirit in graphic images.

The influence of Alphonse Mucha and other Art Nouveau poster designers on San Francisco rock posters has always been recognized. The opiated daydreams of art from the fin de siecle set an obvious precedent for ’60s psychedelia, especially given the counterculture’s quest to get beyond the sterile geometry of modernism as it had developed in the 20th century and return to what it saw as a more colorful, heroic age. The new generation of San Francisco poster artists enjoyed direct stimulation from a major exhibition in November 1965, “Jugenstil and Expressionism in German Posters,” at the University of California Berkeley Art Gallery. The undulating, bold patterns and non-Euclidean geometry on display spoke directly to an audience happily experimenting with LSD, a recently developed drug (and still legal). The drug’s advocates believed that “acid” was the key, in the words of British author Aldous Huxley, which would open the doors of perception.

We Wilson rock concert posterArtist Wes Wilson’s poster design for a 1967 concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.

In any event, the wavering distortions of space and time were visual analogues to the music of the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, which relied on hitherto unexplored sonic distortion to stimulate the heady sensation of an LSD trip. Many of the concert posters didn’t bother depicting the bands whose shows they were advertising beyond listing their names, often in beautifully cursive, eye-bending typography. Some deliberately conjured up visions of an Edwardian world or the American West, as if to suggest that sepia-toned dandies, cowboys and American Indians were models for the freer existence espoused by the counterculture. The aesthetic was tied to everything from the beginnings of “attic chic” to the revival of interest in pre-Raphaelite paintings.

One of the era’s most recognizable images still circulated today was the skeleton and rose motif created for the Grateful Dead by the design team of Mouse & Kelley. Stanley Miller (1940) and Alton Kelley (1940-2008) born on opposite coasts, California and Maine respectively, shared a passion for race cars and motorcycles and an instinctive genius for drawing and design. As luck would have it, both moved to San Francisco in the early ’60s, working independent of the other; Mouse (a grade school nick-name that stuck) designing rock posters and Kelley, promoting concerts from his home base in Haight-Ashbury, the very “happening” epi-center in the San Francisco counterculture scene. In 1966, the artist and the promoter collaborated to form Mouse Studios and by 1969 worked on over 150 posters for concerts at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium, churning out a poster a week. The posters were were placed on telephone poles, as was the custom back then, and given away to concert goers to promote concerts by the Butterfield Blues Band, Moby Grape and Jimi Hendrix Experience and others.  Some of the posters ended up selling for a few bucks in the local head shops. The existing posters, a rarity on the market today, can bring close to $5,000, if in decent shape. Only 10 have appeared at auction since 2008 with an average price around $2,500 per lot.

Another poster artist closely associated with the Grateful Dead, Rick Griffin (1944-1991), started out in the comic strip industry, creating the surfer dude character “Murphy” for Surfer magazine in 1961. Influenced by the work of Mouse & Kelley, he moved up the coast to San Francisco where he soon began designing posters for the Avalon, leading him to Mouse & Kelley. In 1967, Griffin along with Kelley, Mouse and two additional artists, Victor Moscoso (1936) and Wes Wilson (1937), founded Berkeley Bonaparte, a company devoted to psychedelic posters. Moscoso, born in Spain, studied at Cooper Union (New York) and Yale before moving to San Francisco in 1959, eventually teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. Influenced by abstract painter and educator Josef Albers (1888-1976), one of his instructors at Yale, Moscoso was the leader in developing the photo collage and neon color technique seen in many of the psychedelic posters of the era.

Wes Wilson (1937) is the name behind the distinctive art nouveau styled typography which defines  psychedelic poster art. The New York Times referred to him as the father of the psychedelic poster in a recent review of the Rock Poster Society’s 13th annual Festival of Rock Posters in San Francisco (October, 2011).  His psychedelic poster work, produced in 1966 and 1967, may have been short-lived but left an indelible impression of the counterculture movement.

A comprehensive source for on-line viewing, researching and purchasing original posters from the era (there are forgeries out there, buyer beware) is Wolfgangsvault, the San Francisco based internet-only company which draws from the Bill Graham Archive, the collection Bill Graham, concert promoter and operator of the Fillmore.  Taking its name from Graham, who was born Wolfgang Grajonca (Berlin, 1931), the site offers an extensive collection of vintage t-shirts, backstage passes and posters.  A wealth of information is included beside each poster listed, including the tour/show dates, artist, venue and performers on the bill. Prices range from under $100 to $6,000.

Every major city had its psychedelic clubs, head shops and artists influenced by the saffron-scented winds blowing from San Francisco and London. Psychedelia was in the air and local examples of flower power posters still turn up at prices even more reasonable than those by the West Coast masters.

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.

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